Kalporz X Monolith Cocktail: Bob Dylan. The Mask and the Songwriter

June 8, 2022

ESSAY/Samuele Conficoni

From our penpals in Italy at the leading online culture magazine Kalporz, a deep read (footnotes and all) on the occasion of Bob Dylan’s 81st birthday. Samuele Conficoni, imbued loosely by the work Derrida and Artaud, looks at the theme of the mask in Dylan’s work.

“Bob Dylan. The Mask and the Songwriter.”

(The title of the essay is loosely inspired by the work Derrida and Artaud: the mask and the philosopher. [1])

To celebrate Bob Dylan‘s 81st birthday, we address an issue that has not been sufficiently studied within the singer-songwriter’s output: the theme of the mask. This long period of crisis and anomalies – two long years of masks in the West that have forced us to experience the other as veiled, and as the mystery increased so did the difficulty of knowing or recognising who was in front of us – has reminded us that we all often wear a mask. The 2016 Nobel Laureate in Literature, in the course of his very long career, has also written and sung about this, a theme that runs through him in art as in life.

1. “I’ve got my Bob Dylan’s mask on”.

“I’ve got my Bob Dylan’s mask on”: this is what Bob Dylan announced on stage at the Philharmonic Hall in Manhattan on 31/10/1964, on a particularly ‘heartfelt’ night for Americans, the night of Halloween, the masquerade festival par excellence. Bob Dylan, then on his fourth album in just over two years, was already at the time considered one of the most relevant songwriters of his generation. He had already released The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan (1963), The Times They Are A-Changin’ and Another Side of Bob Dylan (both released in 1964), following his 1962 debut of the same name, and was on his way to becoming one of the most extraordinary figures of his time. In truth, that mask – assuming it is only one: director Todd Haynes, in his 2007 film I’m Not There, loosely inspired by the life and work of the singer-songwriter, let six different actors, for six different stages of his career, play him – had first been worn a couple of years earlier, when that promising and energetic young man, born in Minnesota, decided, perhaps also to rewrite his recent and so short past, to legally change his name, Robert Allen Zimmermann, to that of Bob Dylan.

1964. A US tour was underway that saw the singer-songwriter perform some of the most famous songs of his career, a few pieces he had written that had not been officially published, and some traditionals, in full consistency with the musical path he had taken. It should never be forgotten, in fact, that the undergrowth within which the singer-songwriter is formed is that of traditional folk music, of the oldest Anglo-American songs and of blues and gospel, which would remain, in addition to the very broad literary, philosophical and cinematographic influences, the blank page from which he gave life to his compositions. One thinks of the fact that in the 1990s Dylan would record two albums of covers and traditionals and in the 1990s no less than three albums, including a triple album, with reinterpretations of songs from the Great American Songbook, and that some traditional songs or songs from the Great American Songbook would be included in his live sets for decades. Having said this, it is clear that the sentence uttered by the singer-songwriter that night, accompanied by his own and the audience’s laughter, must be correlated with the creative universe that the author had just begun to give life to, in which the very genres he draws on as a source of inspiration serve as a mask, which the singer-songwriter uses to enhance and create his identity rather than to veil it. It is a necessity that has always accompanied the author, [2] when even before choosing the name Bob Dylan he was performing under other pseudonyms, such as Blind Boy Grunt or Elston Gunn.

What we are dealing with is an attitude, if not a forma mentis, that invests his production when, as is traditional in Anglo-American folk music, a certain melody is readapted and combined with new lyrics, written for the occasion, or when certain elements of the text are inserted into the new creation. This is how numerous compositions are born, with procedures that distance the outcome from the original source, sometimes even by a great deal, from “Blowin’ in the Wind”, which takes up the traditional “No More Auction Block”, to “I Was Young When I Left Home”, which looks back to “500 Miles”, from “Girl from the North Country” and “Boots of Spanish Leather” which are built around the chord sequence of “Scarborough Fair“, which “Girl from the North Country” also quotes in the lyrics, to “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” which explicitly quotes the ballad “Lord Randall”. This only partially affects his production, but it is a decisive and emblematic point in the author’s creative process. It is clear, therefore, that in Bob Dylan, the concept of wearing a mask, and in particular of wearing Bob Dylan’s mask, is primarily a ploy to shift the focus away from himself with the main purpose of foregrounding his art.

2. Su maschere e trasfigurazioni

In 20th century literature, an author who deals extensively with the theme of the mask is famously Luigi Pirandello. In the Sicilian author’s literary-philosophical system, form cages life: we all wear masks whenever we decide to expose ourselves to the world around us. [3] Appearing and being in this sense are in constant conflict; the mask represents a shattered self that adapts to the contingent situation. Only in very rare moments does life manage to emerge: in those moments the inhibitions and restraints imposed by the social context are removed and instinct prevails. Pirandello often identifies this in the moments of madness and compulsive mania that cross us from time to time, well exemplified by the famous lawyer and law professor who, in the short story The Wheelbarrow, has the fixed habit of making his bitch do the ‘wheelbarrow’ every day, when he is certain that no one sees him. [4] Similarly, a brief moment of authenticity is what Mattia Pascal experiences between the announcement of his (non-)death and the assumption of his new identity, that of Adriano Meis. The comparison with Pirandello, whose system seems to be in opposition to Dylan’s vision, can provide us with an important key to deciphering Robert Allen Zimmermann’s choice to take on a new name (and to adopt, in the course of his long career, many other pseudonyms, which we will discuss in a moment).

The mask placed on Zimmermann’s face since 1962, even before the singer-songwriter began to release official records and obtain engagements for prestigious shows, is a mask that, rather than stopping the flow of ‘life’, to use again a Pirandellian category, and caging it, aims at creating life itself, as if before this stage it were a piece of marble still unworked. It is in an interview a few years ago, which we will examine later, that Dylan argues that life is a journey in which one must create, not find, oneself. As Alessandro Carrera reminds us again, ‘during an interview with CBS [in 2004], Dylan admits that he could never conceive of himself as “Robert Zimmermann”, even before he became Bob Dylan’. [5] The celebrated autobiography Chronicles Volume 1, to date the only published tome of a hypothetical multi-book project, where the singer-songwriter only deals with certain moments of his career, can offer us some examples of self-creation. [6] It is Carrera again who comes to our aid: the scholar, in dealing with Chronicles and what Dylan may or may not have altered or invented in speaking of himself, questions the existence of certain characters or situations, such as that of Ray and Chloe Kiel, a couple of whom we know nothing about but who, according to Dylan himself, would frequently host the singer-songwriter in New York. [7] It is no coincidence that much of the greatness of Chronicles, a literary work of extraordinary value, lies, to quote Carrera again, in ‘what he keeps silent or refuses to say’. [8]

The mask Robert Zimmermann has chosen for himself, Bob Dylan, is the author’s true self. The ‘artefactual memories’ [9] that the singer-songwriter inserts into the work are in perfect harmony with the need to live the story at the moment in which he is writing or singing it and, in some way, partly rewriting it. It is a typical trait of Dylan’s masterful compositional talent, about which the academic and professor of Classical Literature at Harvard Richard F. Thomas has written about in his essays and discussed in an interview published in these pages, [10] a tendency that includes, for instance, again to quote a passage from Chronicles, the attribution to Sophocles of a treatise on the origin of the sexes that the Greek tragedian and politician never wrote and that more than a banal mistake seems to be Dylan’s hope, a ‘might have been’, a ‘would have liked to read it’.

It is impossible, at this point, not to mention, albeit very quickly, the ‘transfiguration’ that Bob Dylan mentions in an interview with Rolling Stone in 2012, on the occasion of the release of the Tempest album, a studio record released by the singer-songwriter in September of that year. [11] Even if transfiguration is not to be understood as a mask, it is still something that veils or completes one’s own nature, rewrites it, transmigrates that of another, makes it something other than it could have been. It is impossible to understand what Dylan really meant in that specific passage, when a certain Bobby Zimmermann of Hell’s Angel who died in 1961 is called into question. Dylan claims that he has transfigured himself into him and adds, addressing the journalist Mikal Gilmore who is pressing him: ‘I’m not like you, am I? I’m not like him, either. I’m not like too many others. I’m only like another person who’s been transfigured. How many people like that or like me do you know?’. Is there something of the ‘poor Bobby Zimmermann’ in Bob Dylan? Or is it a transfiguration that has no impact on who he is? It seems strange, then, that Dylan speaks of this with such transport. Dylan, however, is very reticent and his explanation a little confusing: there is no clear answer. I too, Dylan says, had a near-fatal motorbike accident in 1966. And so, we ask? Dylan advises us and Gilmore to read No Man Knows My History by Mormon Joseph Smith. The ‘mask’ Bob Dylan is telling us about the truths of faith, about eschatology, about being able to ‘fly above [the chaos]’: just like the masks worn by the actors in Greek tragedy, bearers of ultimate truths that the pólis was not to ignore, masks that had replaced face-painting, a feature that would characterise the 1975 Tour, which will be discussed. On the concept of transfiguration Dylan plays hide-and-seek: he veils and unveils without giving us clues, as he has done throughout his career, particularly with those who interview him. If you want to know more about transfiguration, he tells Gilmore and, perhaps, us too, “you’ll have to go and do the work yourself to find out what it’s about.” [12]

3. “Life is about creating yourself”

Some of the characters in Dylan’s musical and literary world also wear masks or are characterised by nicknames that somehow veil the identity behind the nickname. In “Like a Rolling Stone”,[13] for instance, Dylan decides to use some talking names that somehow qualify the characters by giving them a mask. The narrator sees the life of the interlocutor, called, in fact, Miss Lonely, fall into disgrace: Miss Lonely is a young girl who enjoys life and spends and spends her parents’ money until she ends up becoming like the ragged Napoleon (Napoleon in Rags) she once mocked. Both Alessandro Carrera, in reflections conducted in several places, in his non-fiction production on the singer-songwriter and in his translation and annotation of Dylan’s works, and Mario Gerolamo Mossa, author of a monograph with a philological slant on the song in question, [14] have dealt extensively with the song and this is not the appropriate space to take up their reflections. Whether it is the allegory of a girl from Andy Warhol‘s circle with whom Dylan had come into contact, or an alter ego of Dylan himself, or a literary invention that has no contact with the reality surrounding the author, the Miss Lonely ‘mask’ is a parádeigma of all those who, from a situation of success, prosperity and happiness, find themselves slipping into a tunnel of darkness and misfortune through almost no fault of their own. It is not wrong to say, in short, that if today we wanted to refer to a person who has gone through a similar vicissitude, we could undoubtedly call her ‘a Miss Lonely’.  Here Dylan, having put on the mask that made him himself many years ago, can now afford to sing these kinds of stories, which are absolutely unique in the world songwriting scene.

Ten years had passed since the recording and release of that song that changed history when, in 1975, Bob Dylan, having returned to live in the Village only a few years earlier and just a few months after the release of the sublime Blood on the Tracks, began to frequent the Other End, a venue where he performed frequently in the spring and summer of that year, and where Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, the late hip Bob Neuwirth, who died a few days ago at the age of 82 and who had been at Dylan’s side like a shadow between 1964 and 1965, Ronee Blakley and the then up-and-coming Patti Smith also took the stage. The singer-songwriter was in New York, where he was composing and recording the songs that would end up on Desire, which was to be released in early 1976. It was during these months that Dylan decided to create the Rolling Thunder Revue project, a bandwagon of artists that brought together Dylan himself, his accompanying band, which he called Guam, and other songwriters and artists who could vary according to the day, among whom were Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell, the aforementioned Ramblin’ Jack Elliott and Bob Neuwirth and, from time to time, even Allen Ginsberg, who would take turns on stage or, in Baez’s case, accompany Dylan in some of the songs of his two sets. Rolling Thunder I began in late October 1975 and ended in December at Madison Square Garden, where Bob was greeted backstage by Muhammad Ali and Bruce Springsteen. Widely studied by critics, Rolling Thunder has been the subject of in-depth coverage in a Bootleg Series, Vol. 5 (2002), a box set entitled The 1975 Live Recordings (2019) and Martin Scorsese‘s documentary released for Netflix in 2019 itself, Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese, which deals with the 1975 Tour and its preparations. Rolling Thunder II, on the other hand, took place in the spring of 1976, with different features and arrangements from the first but equally original and breathtaking.

In this period, the theme of the mask, and more generally that of hiding behind another self, is systematically and clearly covered ever since Dylan’s decision to appear on stage, in Rolling Thunder I, with his face painted white, a choice that was often accompanied by the wearing of a mask only during the first song of the set, ‘When I Paint My Masterpiece’, which was often sung with the aforementioned Neuwirth. It is a Dylan, that of ’75, who wants to reinvent himself once again. His marriage is in tatters; he has moved back to New York, is explosive and inspired, and has embarked again on extended tours only a year earlier with The Band. Something original and unsettling is what he needs to signal the new artistic phase he is going through. Here, then, in 1975 the mask returns, be it the real one he only wears occasionally in the opening track of his first set or the allegorical one of the face painted white, both covering the Bob Dylan mask he continues to wear. Perhaps it is metatheatre, perhaps it is the Brechtian actor’s estrangement that would become a systematic and increasingly complex and articulated modus operandi from 1988 to the present, in his so-called Never Ending Tour. It is in the interview with Scorsese for his aforementioned 2019 documentary that Dylan utters the phrase, a variation and extension of a gnome attributed to George Bernard Shaw, ‘life isn’t about finding yourself or finding anything: life is about creating yourself’, also mentioned above. This declaration of intent is the perfect manifesto to describe not only the adventure of the two-year Rolling Thunder period but the whole of Dylan’s life, not just his artistic one.

4. Masked and Anonymous

The film Masked and Anonymous, the title of which is already a statement of intent, was released in 2003, directed by Larry Charles and with a screenplay co-written by Charles and Bob Dylan. A first significant element lies in the fact that the two sign the script with fictitious names: Dylan assumes the Russian-speaking name of Sergei Petrov. The masquerade and anonymity intervene, therefore, right from the start, affecting even the most marginal aspect of the credits. In the film, set in a mysterious nation that seems to be located in a dystopian North or Central America and is ruled by a dictator, Bob Dylan plays Jack Fate, the dictator’s son and famous songwriter, who has been in prison for some time. He is released from prison and allowed to give a benefit concert. The plot is in some respects too cerebral, confused and not particularly gripping and the film is cinematically mediocre, but the importance of the work within the singer-songwriter’s ‘artistic context’ should not be underestimated. I use the expression ‘artistic context’ here to reiterate once again that Dylan is a river in flood and can only be (perhaps only partially) understood and understood if one follows, also and above all with a philological slant, every single aspect of his artistic production, in order to try, in this way, to capture his vision of the world and history. Returning to the film, it is appropriate to ask what this story means and what role it plays within Dylan’s musical production, which resonates powerfully throughout the film as Fate performs Bob Dylan songs and some traditionals. Carrera is again the first among Dylan scholars to grasp the centrality of this work, shoddy from a cinematic point of view but lucidly relevant, in the Dylan universe. In an article published online several years ago, [15] Carrera relates the film to Alexandre DumasThe Iron Mask by the father Alexandre Dumas, showing the points of contact between the two narratives, but he takes a decisive step forward when, both in the online article just cited and in a much more recent essay of his own, [16] recalling the scene of the “very painful kiss” [17] between Jack Fate and Angela Bassett, who is his father’s lover but also Jack Fate’s lover, he realises that in Masked and Anonymous a much bigger and more crucial game is being played than a simple remake of The Iron Mask: a new chapter in the relationship between Bob Dylan and the African-American world, characterised by his fascination with black music and his frequentation of black women (he had married one in the 1980s, by whom he had a daughter), and of the complicated, and here impossible even to synthesise, relationship between his Jewish roots and the African-American universe, an issue that emerges in many of the songs he wrote between 1978 and 1986, poetic, hermetic and contradictory pieces that carry within them an obvious inner torment. Only through a new disguise could Dylan return to talk about that intricate and claustrophobic history. “The fundamental gesture behind Dylan’s œuvre is indeed the permanent construction and deconstruction of himself”,[18] writes Cristophe Lebold, and this film proves it once again, if ever there was a need. Despite the premises, Dylan fails to unravel the skein of that complicated story, but, as Carrera points out, “[he did not fail], because he tried, and nothing more than trying could he do”. [19] Finally, it should be remembered, en passant, that the name Jack Fate bears a striking resemblance to that of Jack Frost, another pseudonym behind which Bob Dylan always hides himself, who with this ‘cipher’ signs himself producer of all his studio albums from “Love and Theft” (2001) onwards, including the recent, splendid Rough and Rowdy Ways (2020). Jack Fate and Jack Frost represent yet another mask behind which the artist seeks new shelters.

Bob’s transformations clearly do not end there. Some time before the release of Masked and Anonymous, while playing in Newport on 3 August 2002, thirty-seven years after the famous concert at the Newport Folk Festival in which the singer-songwriter took to the stage accompanied by a band and strumming an electric guitar, Dylan wore a false beard and moustache, a unique feature that does not appear to be accidental, given the circumstances, namely his return to the place of the misdeed, in the same city where he had been booed and challenged by part of his audience decades earlier. In this game of the parts that seems to have no end and in which the Maestro seems to want to play catch-up with us, Shadow Kingdom, the film-concert recorded in May 2021 and released a few months later, in July, is also part of it. On a stage evidently inspired by the sets of Twin Peaks, sets that he would also adopt for the tours of 2021 and 2022, Bob Dylan performs some songs without spectators in front of him and performs others in front of an audience of ‘ghosts’ dressed in full ’40s or ’50s style, smoking, drinking and dancing; his musicians wear masks, an element that brings us back to the present; the audience that appears from time to time, and who seems to come from another era, does not: just as in his songs, the present, the past and the future are a single river, they all flow together, they mingle; the author has no need of ‘concrete’ masks as he always wears the one that makes him and not someone else. As Carrera writes, Dylan ‘does not even need to put on a mask: he has always had it on’. [20]

[1] Various authors, Derrida and Artaud: the mask and the philosopher, Medusa Edizioni, Milan, 2017.

[2] Among the many biographies of Bob Dylan, we recommend Anthony Scaduto’s Bob Dylan, Helter Skelter Publishing, London, 2001 (reprint of 1st edition Grosset & Dunlap, New York, 1971) and Robert Shelton’s recently reprinted and expanded Bob Dylan: No Direction Home (Revised Illustrated Edition), Palazzo Editions, Bath, 2021 (1st edition Beech Tree Books, New York, 1986).

[3] Of Luigi Pirandello see in particular the novels Il fu Mattia Pascal, published serially in the Nuova Antologia in 1904 and in a volume in the same year, and Uno, nessuno e centomila, published serially in La Fiera Letteraria in 1925 and in a volume in 1926, the play Sei personaggi in cerca d’autore, staged in a first draft in 1921, and the essay L’umorismo of 1908. It should also be mentioned that Pirandello gives the title of Naked Masks as the overall title of his theatre production.

[4] The short story, written in 1917, is contained in the Novelle per un anno.

[5] Alessandro Carrera, La Voce di Bob Dylan, 3rd revised and expanded edition, Feltrinelli, Milan, 2021 (1st ed. 2001; 2nd ed. 2011), p. 95. The 2004 interview for CBS can be found at the following link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hOas0d-fFK8. Last accessed: 22 May 2022.

[6] Bob Dylan, Chronicles Volume 1, Simon & Schuster, New York, 2004. The Italian translation, edited by Alessandro Carrera, was published by Feltrinelli, Milan, in 2005.

[7] Alessandro Carrera, La Voce di Bob Dylan, cit., p. 95 and p. 386.

[8] Alessandro Carrera, La Voce di Bob Dylan, cit., p. 385.

[9] Alessandro Carrera, The Voice of Bob Dylan, cit., p. 392.

[10] Richard F. Thomas, Why Bob Dylan Matters, Dey Street Books, New York, 2017. The interview with Richard F. Thomas published in Kalporz in 2021 can be found at the following link: http://www.kalporz.com/2021/05/bob-dylan-at-80-interview-with-professor-richard-f-thomas-author-of-why-bob-dylan-matters/. Last accessed 22 May 2022.

[11] Bob Dylan Unleashed, in Rolling Stone, interview published on 27 September 2012 and available at the following link: https://www.rollingstone.com/music/music-news/bob-dylan-unleashed-189723/. Last accessed: 18 May 2022.

[12] Bob Dylan Unleashed, in Rolling Stone, cit.

[13] The song, whose officially released studio version was recorded on 16/06/1965, opens the album Highway 61 Revisited (Columbia, 1965).

[14] In Alessandro Carrera, La Voce di Bob Dylan, cit., passim, and in Bob Dylan (transl. by Alessandro Carrera), Lyrics 1962-2020, 3 vols., Feltrinelli, Milan, 2021, in the notes at the end of the first volume concerning the aforementioned song; Mario Gerolamo Mossa, Bob Dylan & “Like a Rolling Stone”: Filologia, composizione, performance, Mimesis, Milan, 2021.

[15] Alessandro Carrera, “The Torture of the Iron Mask. On Masked & Anonymous,” available at http://www.maggiesfarm.it/mascheradiferro.htm. Last accessed 22 May 2022.

[16] Alessandro Carrera, “Between the Shulamite and the Queen of Sheba: The Love Poem That Bob Dylan Could Not Write”, in Fabio Fantuzzi, Maria Anita Stefanelli, Alessandro Carrera (ed. by), Bob Dylan and the Arts: Songs, Film, Painting, and Sculpture in Dylan’s Universe, Edizioni di Storia e Letteratura, Rome, 2021, pp. 83-101.

[17] Alessandro Carrera, “The Torture of the Iron Mask. On Masked & Anonymous,” cit.

[18] Christophe Lebold, “A Face Like a Mask and a Voice that Croaks: An Integrated Poetics of Bob Dylan’s Voice, Personae, and Lyrics,” in Oral Tradition, 22/1, 2007, p. 63.

[19] Alessandro Carrera, “Between the Shulamite and the Queen of Sheba: The Love Poem That Bob Dylan Could Not Write”, cit. p. 101.

[20] Alessandro Carrera, “The Torture of the Iron Mask. On Masked & Anonymous,” cit.


2 Responses to “Kalporz X Monolith Cocktail: Bob Dylan. The Mask and the Songwriter”

  1. […] his writings, and the movies he appeared in – and it has been also translated in English and published by Monolyth Cocktail. Bob Dylan is now touring the US, just like he did in November and December 2021, with his Rough […]

  2. […] his writings, and the movies he appeared in – and it has been also translated in English and published by Monolyth Cocktail. Bob Dylan is now touring the US, just like he did in November and December 2021, with his Rough […]

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